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Will the Common Assessments Be Used as a Graduation Requirement?

Many states plan to replace their current high school exit exams with tests being designed for the Common Core State Standards, according to a new study. And it appears that many of them will tie high school graduation decisions to those new assessments, a shift that could represent a big change in the high school completion landscape.

How states' exit-exam plans dovetail with the forthcoming common assessments was just one of the areas explored in the Center on Education Policy's 12th annual report on high school exit-exam policy, released today. My colleague Caralee Adams has the rundown for you over at the College Bound blog. She notes the ongoing trends in exit exams (tests that states require students to pass in order to earn a diploma), such as the tilt toward end-of-course exams. Half the states in the country now require students to take some form of exit exam.

There are some key trends worth watching here. One is the increasing popularity of attaching high stakes to end-of-course exams. Nine states do so now, compared with only two in 2002.

Another is the big change in the purpose of exit exams. Until relatively recently, high school graduation tests were about determining whether students had learned what educators deemed necessary to finish high school. Now they're more about whether students have done what they should to be prepared for what lies next: career training or college. In 2004, when the CEP first asked states about this, only one (Georgia) cited career and college readiness as a central purpose for the test. This year, 12 of the 25 states that use exit exams cited that reason.

Don't take your eyes off the common-standards-related trends, though. They show up clearly here, and they hold potentially huge ramifications for states, districts, schools, and students. And what we see in the CEP report is that 16 states are planning to replace their exit exams with the common assessments being designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Many of the states that said they would use PARCC's or Smarter's tests instead of their own exit exams reported that they plan to maintain an exit exam. This suggests that they're not planning to use the consortia's tests just for feedback or accountability. It suggests they will use them as exit exams. And an exit exam, in CEP's definition, is something students have to pass to graduate.

The use of the new tests as a graduation threshold raises the specter of even heavier stakes for students than they now face. If it's true that the common standards expect more of students than most states' standards do now, and if it's true that the forthcoming assessments will be similarly demanding, the chances of more students stumbling at that threshold are far higher than they are now.

If you think you are hearing common-standards advocates screaming in frustration at this point, you're probably not imagining it. After all, the whole point of the new standards, they would say, is to make sure that students are well equipped to handle the mathematics and language demands most likely to be placed on them in job training or in college. And the new tests, they would argue, are supposed to make sure students have learned what they need to know to succeed in whatever they do next.

But CEP counters with a warning. While it's true, the report's authors say, that high schools should be expected to prepare students for college and work, there could well be a high price to pay, extracted largely from the students themselves, the students who don't—for whatever reason—pass the tests. (And in 2014-15, the first year the tests will be given, the first students to confront those high stakes will be those with the fewest years of common-core-aligned study.)

"Policymakers must ask themselves," the CEP report says, "if these expectations, and the assessments used to measure progress toward them, should come with stakes so high they prevent some students from graduating high school at all."

These are trends and policy decisions well worth watching as the common core is put into action.

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